Ever since first hearing his haunting vocals on XO's "Pulling Me Under", we've kept a very steady eye on Leo Kalyan's musical endeavours. The themes of travel and escapism feature very heavily in Leo's music, so we decided to catch up with him and explore just why this is as he embarks on a mission to create and release one new song each month. Read more below:
Who is Leo Kalyan, the artist?
I’m a singer-songwriter and producer from London. I also do collage and mess about with visual art.
Why did you choose music?
It allows to me express myself. I write my own songs and in many ways I would say I'm a writer before I’m a singer. I used to sing for fun at school, imitating singers like Mariah Carey or Janet Jackson before my own voice broke! My friends said I had a good voice, and it all started there; the singing became a vehicle for expressing what I was feeling. I grew up feeling a lot of friction between my culture and my sexuality, so I guess I had a lot of angst that needed an outlet. Funnily enough, it’s only recently with the “Outside In” EP that I’ve been able to fully express that in my music. So it’s been a long journey, but I’d say that’s why I chose music. It also combines the three things I’m naturally good at: music, writing and visual art.
I first saw you at Sofar Sounds - how important is it to showcase your music to intimate audiences?
Extremely important. My music is very intimate sounding, so I think it works best in intimate venues where the audiences are smaller and you can feel a closer connection with them. That’s one of the reasons I like to perform at smaller venues when I do my headline gigs — it feels right.
I first heard you on XO’s: Pulling Me Under, how did that collaboration come about?
XO and I had spoken on twitter and were fans of each other’s work. He’s a brilliant producer, massively underrated, in my opinion. We decided we wanted to do a track together and he sent me a small idea of the song and it developed from there.
Following on from that, how important is collaboration for you?
Oh, it’s really central to what I do. The thing is, I am a singer, writer and producer - so I basically do everything. For a while, I thought being self-sufficient was the best way of working but then it dawned on me that this isn’t how music is meant to be made. It’s supposed to be different musicians who are all great at their craft, coming together to create something unique, together. So now I work with a few different people, musicians and producers. I still do plenty of stuff all on my own, but collaboration has become key to my music making process.
"Singing became a vehicle for expressing what I was feeling."
Now onto an interesting project you started this year: you want to create and release a new song every month for a year, tell us why you decided to do this?
I think the way that people consume music has changed. Personally, I don’t want get a whole album in one go and then not hear any new music from my favourite artist for a whole year; I want something new on a regular basis! So I’m just trying to give the same thing back to my audience.
Your first offering in relation to that challenge: Feels Right literally felt like you were breathing summer into those chilly spring days; what was your frame of mind while making that song? (and will there be a video?)
“Feels Right” was inspired by a road trip I took around Andalusia in Southern Spain - and that’s why it sounds like it does. I’d love for there to be a video, but nothing’s planned just yet!
The last time we spoke, you told me about being invited down to perform at Maida Vale Studios, how was that experience for you?
Terrifying, haha! I had mistakenly thought that I was going to perform a few songs on the radio; I stupidly didn’t realise it was going to filmed and broadcast live on TV and radio. So I had to rush all the way back home to East London to get a change of clothes! But it was great experience; I learned a lot about the pressures of performing in front of live cameras, and it was great to conquer a fear. It also felt awesome to be in such a historic place: I was singing in a room where Bing Crosby gave his last studio performance!
Travel plays a big part in the imagery used in a lot of your music videos (specifically, Fucked Up and Get Your Love come to mind), is this were you get a lot of your inspiration? From travelling to new places?
Yes, I’d say so. Escapism is a massive theme in my work. I think that because of who I am, as a gay, south-asian guy from a muslim background, there are a lot of forces and restrictions I have felt in my life. The ocean is a place that seems free, which is why it’s a large part of my visual identity. It’s borderless.
How has being based in London helped (or hindered) you in your music making process?
It’s been massively helpful. I am a born and bred Londoner. This is my home and it also happens to be a melting pot of the best artists and musicians from all over the world; so it really helps being here.
“Escapism is a massive theme in my work.”
What are the realities of surviving in the music industry as an independent artist?
Oh wow, where do i start?! haha, I’m joking. There are positives in that, you can do what you what and be the commander of your own ship, so to speak. Luckily, I am the kind of artist who is deeply involved in all the various creative aspects of my work: from the music to the artwork to the visuals and branding… it all stems from me. But the downside is that you don’t have investment from a big company in the early part of your career. That is, in many senses, what allows an artist’s career to grow. I may not have the same level of financial investment as other artists - but i’m still managing to get played on the radio and have created a sizeable audience of loyal fans on Spotify. That’s all I ever wanted. As long as I’m able to do this for a living, the only way is up!
In 2016, nearly 900,000 people streamed over 22 years of your music on Spotify, how does it feel for you to hear stats like that?
It feels amazing. Like I said, I’m an indie artist — so to achieve results like that when the odds are stacked against you… it’s a wonderful thing. I’m really grateful and humbled by it.
On that topic, do you see streaming as the death of an artist’s “fair share”?
I mean, it is what it is. There are huge benefits to streaming. It’s allowed hundreds of thousands of people to discover my music via online playlists and algorithms - which was basically the traditional job of radio stations. Streaming has created room for more people, and I think that can only be a good thing. No one needs to hear the same 20 songs played on repeat again and again all day every day. We live in an age of choice: let’s make the most of that!
Speaking of Spotify, who are you currently enjoying listening to?
I absolutely love River Tiber, his song “Let You Go” is a masterpiece. I also love Nav - another Canadian Hip Hop and R&B artist. And Glass Animals, who delivered a brilliant album with “How to be a Human Being”.
Is it harder to be a “successful musician/artist” in 2017?
I’m not sure. I mean, I’ve never known anything else, so I’m rolling with the punches. It’s hard, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
And finally, what does success mean to you?
For me, success is, and always will be, having a loyal fanbase that love what I do and support me on this crazy journey. I just want to be able to keep doing what i’m doing. From my point of view, anything else is just be a bonus.
A huge thanks to Leo for sitting down with us; make sure you keep up with Leo's moves on his socials below, as he continues to push himself as an artist: